A true gem of wilderness lies hidden away from the population centers of Oregon. The Blue Mountains stretch from Strawberry Mountain in the south near the town of John Day to Elkhorn Mountain outside of Baker City. Farmland and cattle country lines the valley floors, but the mountainous terrain remains untrammeled wilderness. On a recent backpacking trip for three days through the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness I encountered only eight people in passing and had alpine lake campsites all to myself. If, like me, you crave the solitude of the wild with sweeping vistas, old forests, and abundant wildlife, the Blue Mountains are the place to go.
John Day is the launching pad to Strawberry Mountain Wilderness and nearby Dixie Butte. It is the major town of Grant County, an area known more for its open land and old rural farming roots. Its namesake, bestowed on a wide swath of this part of Oregon, was a member of the Astor party expedition that followed on the heels of Lewis and Clark's more famous exploration of the west. After getting sick and being left by the main group, John Day, a trapper on the expedition, was robbed and stripped naked by Native Americans. After a considerable amount of time in this sorry state he was found and finally made his way to Astoria. And to this day, the Blue Mountains that stretch along the John Day watershed remain a great place to go to get lost in the wilds.
Late summer and early autumn is the best time to explore the area. The snows have melted and the mosquitos have dwindled. Hot days and chilly high alpine nights are the norm. Hunting season begins, but given the remoteness of the area, the sounds of gunshots are few and far between, and it's likely that any hunting party you encounter will share their tales of wildlife they find along the way. Bears, cougars, mountain goats, elk, and deer move through on a regular basis.
Wildfires are a legitimate summer concern for backpackers in this part of Oregon. Dixie Butte, a nice hike with sweeping views of the Blue Mountains, operates as a fire lookout in the summer months. Wilderness firefighters actively contain most fires as they happen with a priority to protect dwellings and structures. For the wilderness areas, this means fires can burn for a long time and will often be left to themselves as long as towns or farms are not in the way. It's important to check for any existing fires or forecast conditions before you go by using some of the resources that are available. Fire restrictions prohibit making campfires in the mountains, where even a small spark can start a conflagration.
If you have concerns about hunting or wildfire dangers, contact the local ranger stations in the area before planning your trip. Make sure to check the weather forecast since lightning storms, snow, or torrential rains are possible any time of the year. But with those caveats, prepare to find a place to yourself and an experience you'll remember for a lifetime.